Lesson 3: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Topic 2: Fundamental Freedoms

Rights and freedoms are not without limits. Sometimes they have to be limited in order to protect the rights and freedoms of others. For example, prisoners have some of their rights and freedoms taken away because they have broken the law.

An example occurred during the Stanley Cup Riots in downtown Vancouver in 2011. People gathered to celebrate (protected under "freedom of peaceful assembly") with other hockey fans (protected under "freedom of association"). However, when the assembly turned into a riot the freedoms of others (such as those of shopkeepers whose windows were broken) were compromised. The police had to arrest some rioters who were then charged with breaking the law.

Another example would be if a white supremacy group gathered to spout out hate messages against Jews, African Canadians and other minority groups. They may gather under the freedom of association but their message is not protected under the Charter as hate crimes are illegal under the constitution. Freedoms are guaranteed only to such reasonable limits as can be justified in a free and democratic society.

Some recent cases on the fundamental freedoms follow and are in Handout 2: A Closer Look Fundamental Freedoms and Equality Rights.

Fundamental Freedoms: Section 2

  • Freedom of conscience and religion
  • Freedom of thought, belief, and expression
  • Freedom of peaceful assembly
  • Freedom of association

Conscience and Religion

  • You have a right to practise your religion’s beliefs and to declare them without fear
  • No one can be forced to act in a way contrary to one’s beliefs or conscience
Focus Case 1

In 1985, a landmark case, Regina v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd. [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295, tested the Lord’s Day Act, which prevented stores from opening on Sunday because it was supposed to be a day of rest. The Act was struck down because it went against the Charter’s right of freedom of religion and conscience. The Act essentially forced people of other religions to observe Sunday in a Christian context. Other Canadian courts have also held up employee’s rights to take days off to observe religious holidays.

Note: Sometimes the Court must weigh one Charter freedom against another. An example is the issue of blood transfusions. While the Court recognizes parents’ rights to worship freely, it will not support this right if parents refuse to approve a life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds.

Thoughts and Expression

Under s. 2(b) you are free to think and believe what you want and to publicly express your opinions through writing, speech, art, music, or photography.

Focus Case 2

In 2009, in Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority v. Canadian Federation of Students [2009] 2 S.C.R.295, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that BC’s two transit agencies TransLink and BC Transit violated the Charter by rejecting ads on the sides of buses from the BC Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian Federation of Students. The ads were to encourage students to vote in the 2005 provincial election, but the bus companies argued that the ads would create an unwelcome environment for bus patrons. The Court’s decision was unanimous, but that does not mean that TransLink would not be well within its rights “to ban ads that do threaten the safety or welfare of the public, such as ones that incite or condone violence or include discriminating violence,” opined Peter McKnight in his op-ed column in the Vancouver Sun.

Focus Case 3

The RCMP planned to set up free speech areas during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Many questions were being asked. Does this mean that there was not free speech at any other Olympic sites? Does it mean that the RCMP think the public would be safer if the Charter right to freedom of speech was restricted to certain areas only? Craig McInnes, writing in the Vancouver Sun, said, “But legitimate free speech, no matter how stupid, must be allowed anywhere and anytime it doesn’t unduly impinge on the equally important rights of others.”

Peaceful Assembly and Association

  • You may gather with friends to celebrate an event or to demonstrate a point-of-view as long as it is lawful and peaceful
  • If, however, you break a law in the Criminal Code, your group could be dispersed and arrested
Focus Case 4

In the 1990’s, people gathered to celebrate (protected under freedom of peaceful assembly) with other hockey fans (protected under freedom of association) a Vancouver Canucks’ win during the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs. However, when the assembly turned into a riot in 2011, the freedoms of others (such as those of shopkeepers whose windows were broken and of bystanders who felt a threat to their personal safety) were compromised. The police had to arrest some rioters who were then charged with breaking the law. Freedoms are guaranteed only to such reasonable limits as can be justified in a free and democratic society.